One of the topics I’ve found fascinating in my coverage of Virginia parks is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
The “CCC boys” were put to work in 1933 as a way to help young men—and the country—rebound from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In nine years, the more than 3 million men who worked in the program built more than 40,000 bridges, planted more than 2 billion trees, restored nearly 4,000 historic sites and structures, improved thousands of beaches, roads and shorelines and created 800 state parks, including six in Virginia.
In Virginia, they also built Recreational Demonstration Areas, one that would become Prince William Forest Park, a national park, and one in Chesterfield County that would become Virginia’s eighth state park, now called Pocahontas.
My interest was piqued a while back when I toured a CCC Museum at that park, one that exists to tell the story of the CCC program, the history of the park and the role the CCC played in constructing Virginia’s six original state parks: Westmoreland, First Landing (originally Seashore), Stanton River, Fairy Stone, Douthat and Hungry Mother.
It’s interesting to think of how life changed so quickly for boys between the ages of 18 and 23 (the range eventually expanded to 17–25) who suddenly found themselves halfway across the country in CCC camps.
“Their first task was often to build their own barracks, living in tents until they accomplished that,” said CCC Museum Curator Aaron–Paula Thompson at Pocahontas. “Here, they cut timber from what would eventually become Beaver Lake, using it to build those barracks.”
The young men in the CCC companies were fed three heaping meals a day to give them enough calories to sustain them as they dug earth, cracked rocks, cut and planted trees, raised fire towers and changed the landscape mostly by hand.
“There’s a great clip of FDR at Roosevelt Camp, now Shenandoah National Park, telling CCC crew members he understood that many of these young men, who’d wondered for years where their next meal was coming from, had put on 8 or 10 pounds since getting there. He told them he was hoping to lose that much there.”
Thompson said that the single, young men were paid $30 a month, but had to send $25 of that home to their families.
The curator said visitors are amazed by how fast the CCC came to be.
“FDR took office in March of 1933, and by the end of that month, had secured funding for the Emergency Conservation Work Act, which paid for the CCC,” she said. “By July of 1933, 300,000 boys were employed and streaming into the camps.”
Thompson said that in spots like Westmoreland, Prince William and Chesterfield counties, people were initially worried about 200 young men moving in, but those feelings changed.
“Remember, they were all trained to fight fires, and did just that in their communities,” she said, noting that it was also common for CCC workers to help dig folks out after snowstorms or clear roads after storms.
“And the folks who owned little markets, still struggling to make a comeback, were glad to see the boys come in to buy cigarettes or candy bars, with bigger stores and lumber yards glad to be selling materials to the camps,” she said.
Thompson said youngsters are struck by how little the boys owned.
“We point out that each boy got two work uniforms and a dress uniform when they arrived, and two pairs of shoes,” she said. “And that for many of them, it was the first time in their lives that they had owned two pairs of shoes.”
She noted that the camps were run by the war department and managed by military officers, while the work was supervised by groups ranging from the Department of Interior to soil and water conservation officials.
And there was time in the evenings at the camps for recreation and self-improvement.
“They were able to take classes and get their GEDs in the camps, as well as learning skills like carpentry and blacksmithing,” she said. “And they had a range of intramural sports in the camps.”
Thompson said that many of the CCC camps published their own newsletters that contained things like “poetry, announcements, staffing changes and occasionally, some really weird inside jokes.”
While the CCC slowly shrunk as the economy slowly recovered, the start of World War II pretty much ended it, and the CCC shut down in 1942.
I can’t help but compare the way our government deals with problems today and the way FDR was able to get the CCC and so many other programs up and running quickly—and with the full support of Congress and the country.
Thompson, who said she ended up in her job partly because of a keen interest in history and FDR, said of the CCC: “One reason it worked was that the country had hit rock bottom, but also because Roosevelt walked in with a plan that was workable, doable and created hope. It contained solutions that people could get their heads around and make work.”